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Without values, Jewish knowledge is not enough
By SANA BRITA VSKY
04/12/2013
The new generation of the Russian- speaking Jews develops its national identity in completely different circumstances.
 
Working in the field of Jewish identity empowerment of Russian-speaking Jews in Israel and worldwide, it is often tempting to concentrate on the mission of getting out and spreading around as much Jewish knowledge as possible.

The complicated history of Russian- speaking Jewish community includes many painful pages – “cantonist” theft of children, pogroms and religious persecution under tzars, the upheaval of the Russian revolution and the suppression of Jewish religious and cultural institutions, the Holocaust, and the persistent effort of the Soviet regime to prevent any contact between the Soviet Jews and Israel and the Jewish communities from abroad, have created a void which is now being filled.

This history also includes a great miracle of Yiddish culture, the bravery of the Zionist movement and the development of the unique character of the Russian Jewish community.

Even after over 20 years have passed after the fall of the USSR, with the former lands of the Soviet bloc witnessing a veritable Renaissance of Jewish communal and spiritual life, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

The new generation of the Russian- speaking Jews develops its national identity in completely different circumstances.

It is free to work on its understanding of its Jewish legacy, free to exchange experiences and ideas with its peers in the global Jewish community, free to pursue its connection to Israel – the place, the nation and the idea. There’s both a constant demand for knowledge and a necessity to ensure that this precious commodity is of a proper quality and “packaged” in a way that makes it relevant and inspiring.

However, as an executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy Group in Israel, I believe that in our efforts to inform the new Jewish generation we must remember and promote those values that underpin the whole concept of “being Jewish” – especially those which create the foundations of Jewish communal life and inspire the drive for “tikkun olam.” Together with our partners, we must ensure that the Jewish identity of a new generation and those which will follow will encompass not only the Jewish knowledge – history, tradition, sacred texts, culture and language – but also the Jewish way of thinking, based on the principles of compassion, mercy, charity, mutual help and care for our neighbors, those who are in need of assistance, protection and empathy.

This tradition of solidarity, brotherhood and care was always an essential part of the Jewish culture, but it was critical for the physical survival of the Russian Jews and the preservation of the Jewish spirit in the lands of Russian and then Soviet empire. It was this spirit of communal cohesion that brought Russian Jews who went to the “goldene medine” to create the institutions of the future American Jewish community. In Israel, this tradition found itself transformed into the basic principles which guided the leadership of the Yishuv on its way to independence and beyond. To revive it today means to complete the circle of Russian Jewish revival.

This is why, as a matter of policy, we insist that in all projects that Genesis Philanthropy Group supports or participates in Israel, there will be a substantial volunteering component. From the summer youth camps to Taglit-Birthright groups from the Former Soviet Union, we made it our goal to get the participants to experience the joy of giving and the spiritual reward of helping to make our world a little better.

This year, in the framework of our efforts to promote the Holocaust education, together with the Yad Vashem Memorial Complex, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint), the Jewish Agency and the Claims Conference we have initiated the Phoenix project which, by expanding the knowledge of young Jews from the FSU about the tragic and heroic past of their communities, aims to motivate them to become a new vanguard of the volunteering activities, leadership and the community-building efforts at home.

For the Russian-speaking community in Israel, the need to provide comfort and companionship to the elderly is probably even more acute than in the society in general.This recognition drives the volunteering initiatives of many of our partners who are engaging Russian-speaking students and young adults, such as the Shishi- Shabbat Yisraeli project which has developed its own unique initiative of visiting World War II veterans, especially on Jewish holidays.

“Fishka” – a multicultural young community in Tel Aviv – has given birth to the “Art of Time” – program of workshops conducted by art professionals in the nursing homes and centers for the elderly.

The spectrum of those activities is constantly growing as our partners seek their own independent ways to contribute to the society and develop their own voluntary initiatives. For example, the “ISRACAMPUS ” summer camp provides the children with an opportunity to decide by themselves what kind of volunteering projects they want to support and to get involved with. The Mibereshit educational initiative offers the high school students who take part in its program “a day of helping others,” during which they join the volunteers of various Israeli organizations working with elderly and disabled as well as pre-school and special- needs institutions. The Russian-speaking educational network “Machanaim” made the volunteering effort an integral part of its unique community-building project “Kehilot.”

In Soviet mentality, both the subject of children with special needs and psychological care were considered taboo, with the state providing minimal or no professional care at all. In Israel, we have supported the initiative of “Kesher” – organization for families with children with special needs – to expand their activities among the Russian-speakers, and the “spiritual care” grassroots project “Yad Va Nefesh,” aimed at helping the immigrants to overcome crisis situations.

The list can go on and on.

In Israel and the Russian-speaking Diaspora, the results show that when the element of tikkun olam is introduced, it is not only accepted but enthusiastically embraced, linking together the legacy of the past and the future of our community. This gradual interactive development of the “giving instinct,” leading to the increased sense of community and volunteerism, is, to my mind, the only way to ensure that our efforts will produce not just a large number of well-informed Jewish individuals, but a global Jewish collective – a people.

The author is executive director of Genesis Philanthropy Group in Israel.
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